Sunday, July 22, 2007

Inter-Religious Dialogue

(Reposted with some changes from the original entry on bloopdiary posted on 10/06/2003)

What is dialogue?

Simply put, a dialogue is a conversation between two people. But in the context of religions the definition most apt is “an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement.” However, the definition is still too general. In the domain of religions, an amicable settlement or agreement is difficult. Firstly, such ‘agreements’ would require centralized decision-making; something that even the most organized of religions cannot possess, (especially in comparison with entities like the nation-state), primarily because faith/belief is a matter of individual conscience which is inherently beyond the scope of any form of legislation. Secondly, the very nature of belief in religious matters renders agreement that can resolve the conflicts exceedingly difficult, almost impossible to achieve.

The expected result of inter-religious dialogue then cannot be agreement; it has to be comprehension. Naturally, a superficial conversation cannot be dialogue in this sense. A sustained encounter between members of different religious traditions with the stated intent and determined efforts towards understanding another point of view; this will be our ‘definition’ of ‘Inter-Religious Dialogue’ (IRD), for the purpose of this entry.

Owing to my situation and scope of knowledge, this entry, while it attempts to be about IRD in general, is likely to get an ‘India & the West’-‘Hinduism & Christianity’ slant, particularly in terms of the examples I would cite. In contrast to most other entries on this diary, this entry is also going to contain my personal opinions & views, rather than simply information. I request the reader’s indulgence.

The purpose of dialogue

Why is IRD required? To gain an understanding of the other religious tradition is simplistic answer. Comprehension cannot be an end in itself. There could be many reasons why people would want to indulge in IRD. There would be those who like to engage in scholastic discourse, philosophers of religion, students of comparative religion, theologians, and such like scholars would fall in this category. However, their objective usually is to gain knowledge about several religious traditions and they usually would not focus on the interactions between two specific traditions. An increasing number of people seek to know about other religions with a view to promoting diversity and pluralism. Often, instruction about ‘World Religions’ creeps into school curricula at least in part for this reason. Civic authorities in areas having large minority population often ‘teach’ facts about the minority religions to those of their employees that are likely to come in contact with the minorities, with the view to enhancing sensitivity towards cultural issues. Historically though, proselytisation has been the most important reason for engaging in IRD. In fact IRD began as a kind of ‘by-product’ of Christianity’s missionary activities. It was the Vatican, which formalised IRD as a kind of ‘policy’ in what has often been perceived as an effort to tone down the aggressive/offensive thrust of its missionary activities. Owing to this history other considerations often clouded IRD. For much of the Americas, Asia and Africa, Christianity was a pre-cursor and/or compatriot of colonialism.

IRD with a view to proselytisation involves negative ad well as positive scrutiny of the ‘other’ religion. Negative scrutiny focuses on the flaws of the other tradition & its customs and contrasts those with the merits of ones own. Positive scrutiny, on the other hand, tries to identify points of similarity, and then attempts to use these as points of reference for reaching out and convincing.

Types of dialogue

Dr. Eric Sharpe, the renowned scholar of Comparative Religion categorises IRD into four types. Other scholars (Donald Mitchell) have also arrived at very much similar ‘levels’ of dialogue.

Human Dialogue or the Dialogue of Life: At the most basic level, this involves courteous interactions with adherents of other religions that are encountered. It involves exchanging gifts and greetings and in many ways to meet simply as human beings rising above the different religious traditions that separate them. Most of us indulge in this kind of dialogue when we interact with people of other faiths.

Secular Dialogue or the Dialogue of Collaboration: This level of dialogue sees people of different faiths collaborating in matters of public / common concern. The religious beliefs while relevant to such collaboration are not be discussed or brought into focus. A good example would be joint declarations by several religious figures adhering to different faiths against sectarian violence.

Discursive Dialogue or the Dialogue of Theological Discussion: This involves debate, study of scripture and such ‘scholarly’ endeavours. It can often involve heated arguments. Most formal IRD processes fall into this category. It is a very specialised level and involves comparison of beliefs and values. Hence it is required that the participants are well informed about the theology, philosophy, beliefs and customs of the two traditions involved.

Spiritual Dialogue or the Dialogue of Religious Experience: This level of dialogue involves spiritual practice. It involves praying, meditating, fasting, etc., often involving the use of the spiritual methods of the other tradition. It can also involve praying together, each according to his/her own tradition, or narrating / sharing ones spiritual experiences. Some would contend that this level is no ‘genuine’ dialogue in any way. I would tend to believe that this is the deepest level of dialogue possible and one, which most benefits the dialogists concerned. Spiritual dialogue, by its very nature can never be a mass activity. There are likely to be even fewer spiritual dialogists than there would be discursive dialogists.

IRD in India

Lets take the example of India and the history of Hindu-Christian dialogue. Christianity came to India, most probably via Syria, through trading routes with South India. Legend has it that the apostle St. Thomas landed in India in 42 AD and won a substantial following. These Christian communities though, remained small and little if any records of ‘dialogue’ exist. The coming of the Europeans in the 16th Century, led by the Portuguese started the first sustained ‘missionary’ effort in India. Each colonial power brought its own set of missionaries and they wrote back to Europe of the appalling religious beliefs and practices of the Indians. Much of the study of Hinduism emanating from these missionaries for the next 200 years focused on ‘negative proselytisation’. Such horrific ‘Hindoo’ (sic) practices like ‘suttee’ (sic) were written about, convincing devout audiences back in Europe of the need to bring both Christianity and European rule to the barbaric natives of India.

Starting the 18th century, this began to change. Visionaries like the French Catholic missionary, Jean-Antoine Dubois, who believed that the work of a Christian missionary should be based on a thorough acquaintance with the innermost life and character of the native population, began to study Hinduism closely. The second phase in Hindu-Christian IRD began advent of British rule in several parts of India. This brought intellectuals to India and less biased information about the Jewel in the Crown began to flow back to Europe. Stalwarts like Sir Monier Williams, Sir Edwin Arnold, Dr. Max Muller, pioneers in the translation of Hindu scriptures, aimed to study and understand. While their stated objective continued to be evangelism, they were scholars and not preachers. The ‘positive proselytisation’ phase of dialogue had begun. In parallel, secular and human dialogue evolved and continued in parts of India with substantial Christian communities (Goa, South India, the North East, etc), this continues to date.

An interesting and indirect result of the first century of British Rule was what has been called the ‘Hindu Renaissance’. This manifested in three distinct ways. The first to emerge was the need for reform. The impact of western education produced reformers and thinkers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Keshubchunder Sen, Justice Ranade, etc. Many of these thinkers studied Christianity and felt that Hinduism had several things to learn from it, particularly in areas of religious organisation (the Church, Hinduism does not have a parallel institution), and a systematic approach to community & social service. Several of these thinkers initiated steps in this direction by founding spiritual societies and organisations. A second manifestation was spearheaded by Hindu mystics like Shri Ramakrishna, and his foremost & most famous disciple Swami Vivekananda. Their lives and teaching sought to demonstrate that Hinduism is not a dead religion of the hoary past but a vibrant religion that retains its vitality and has an immense amount of spiritual wisdom to offer to the west. It is unclear to what extent the British rule was causally responsible for this reaction, however it certainly gave rise to the means (enhanced communication, modern means of transport, etc) to enable Hinduism to reach out to the west in, what has often been described as, the Indian ‘counter-mission’. Their pioneering impact was extended by scholars like Dr. S Radhakrishnan, philosopher, teacher and statesman, who chaired the Oxford department of Indian Philosophy.

A third and somewhat militant outcome was an antagonistic revivalism that held that Hinduism did not need to learn from other religious traditions, it needed to rediscover its ancient wisdom and past glories. This school of thought is epitomised by Swami Dayanand Saraswati and his Arya Samaj. While this school had limited impact on dialogue directly, it found increasingly vocal support in the rising tide of Indian Nationalism. The association, if not the identification, of Christianity with colonialism meant that India’s nationalist leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, naturally looked askance at missionary activity.

Owing to these factors the history of discursive Hindu-Christian dialogue in India has been rather turbulent. The scars of partition and the horrific communal conflicts that preceded and followed the division have made religion is a very sensitive issue in modern India. On one hand are the ‘secularists’ who vehemently proclaim the oneness of all religions, on the other hand is the militant Hindu right, (a very new phenomenon in Hinduism), who demonise other religions as anti-national. Both positions render dialogue difficult. The first renders dialogue unnecessary, the second position prevents it.

Political ideologies however cannot seggregate people into isolated compartments. Religion, in India is a very visible feature and it permeates the daily lives of its teeming millions; not for nothing has India often been described as the most religious country in the world. A multitude of religions not withstanding, commonalities of culture and language ensure a thriving secular & human dialogue between the adherents of various religions. All said and done, it is this spirit of tolerance that is ingrained in the Indian ethos as a result of millennia of living with adherents of ‘other religions’, that binds the nation together, despite all the contradictions and tensions.

Assessment & Conclusion

Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology is an example of successful dialogue. Gandhi is best known for his doctrine of non-violence (ahimsa). Like many educated Indians of his time, Gandhi travelled to England to study Law. It was while in England that Gandhi studied the New Testament. The Sermon on the Mount profoundly influenced him. He saw the life transforming moral courage that would be needed if a person were to be able to ‘turn the other cheek’. The life and teachings of Jesus Christ certainly played a role in Gandhi's thinking when he formulated his method of non-violent resistance (satyagraha).

Popular thinking about the colonies in Britain (and other Western imperial powers) was the ‘White Man’s Burden’ ideology – the belief that the barbaric lesser races of the world required the civilising & moral influence of firm and paternalistic European rule to prevent them from disintegrating into chaos, (negative proselytisation was fodder for this ideology). Rudyard Kipling's entire generation, most Europeans & North American’s at some level believed this and thought that their rule in the colonies was morally justified. The importance of Gandhian thinking, which even Indian historians often miss is that he snatched that 'moral high ground' from the British! He put India's freedom struggle on an EVEN higher moral pedestal. Most reasonable Christians in Britain & America saw that Gandhi & his followers who 'turned the other cheek' were BETTER Christians than the British police who beat them up!! The insights Gandhi derived from the teachings of Christ made him a BETTER HINDU than he was before and in becoming a better Hindu he became a better Christian than his Christian oppressors! Such insights ate the ‘Eureka’ moments of IRD.

In my opinion, the four levels of dialogue should ideally follow in that sequence. Only if IRD ultimately leads individuals to participate in spiritual dialogue can it attain its stated objective – comprehension of the other religion in a ‘religious’ sense. Dialogue in this sense involves understanding that all religions seek to address the fundamental questions of human existence. Thus it is very much possible, that learning about the answers provided by another tradition can help us better understand the answers given by our own. This enhanced understanding is the fruition of dialogue. The sincere attempt to understand another faith often results in us seeing glimpses of our own faith in what we considered an alien line of thought.

At all levels, when sincerely attempted IRD usually does lead to more harmonious relationship between the various religious traditions. The sincerity is a key qualifier, essential to retain the 'spirit' of dialogue. It is this sincerity that leads to true tolerance. A polite glossing over of differences between religious traditions, or a mushy mushy over simplification of the core issues with superficial statements like 'it is all one God' is anti-thetical to the spirit of dialogue. Hinduism has the idea of spiritual competence, (adhikara). And only someone who has that competence, (the adhikarin), has the right to declare the identity of some spiritual concept or say that some ritual is meaningless. Only someone who has the adhikara to really see the identity of Christ & Krishna has the right to proclaim that. Often enough, well intentioned but over-enthusiastic attempts at dialogue fail because people fail to recognize this caveat.

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